Like a reverse version of those Old World Vikings celebrated around these parts, Minneapolis native Siri Undlin spent her first year out of college traveling around the North Sea, to Norway, Ireland, Scotland and points in between on a fellowship to research Nordic and Gaelic folk songs and tales.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of romantic, fun-filled year abroad that college graduates dream about, but it pointed her in the right direction.
“I was near the Arctic Circle in these remote locations a lot of the time, and alone for most of it,” she recalled. “It was an amazing experience but got pretty dark — literally and personally.”
Once she finally returned to the friendlier (if not thermally warmer) confines of Minneapolis, Undlin decided the best way to cheer herself up was to — what else? — write her own dark and cold folk tunes.
“I didn’t want to just be in academia studying songs and stories anymore,” she said. “I wanted to focus on writing them myself.”
Five years later, Undlin has made a name for herself as one of the Twin Cities’ most promising new singer/songwriters. Or at least she’s making a name for her stage and recording moniker, Humbird, lifted from a small dot of a town in central Wisconsin she drove through on tour with her former duo, Undlin & Wolfe.
Undlin, 28, headed back to Wisconsin last winter to record Humbird’s first full-length album, with Eau Claire’s Shane Leonard (of Field Report) serving as producer/arranger and Bon Iver affiliate Brian Joseph engineering and mixing. She’s celebrating its release Saturday with a showcase at the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis.
Titled “Pharmakon” to reflect an idea of Plato’s — that which can cure you can also ail you — the album blends ancient fairy tales and biblical stories with vignettes and imagery from Undlin’s modern life.
“Someone in their mid-20s realizing how hard it is to go for your dreams,” Undlin said, summing up the personal side of the record in an interview last week walking around Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. The setting sure beat the musty dive bars or warehouse rehearsal spaces where local musicians usually want to chat, but it also reflected the nature-y and seasonal aspects of her songwriting.
“I was really at this place where I wanted to shout to be heard, but felt like everyone around me was yelling, too,” she added. “So my response was to turn more inward.”
Pretty common stuff for a young tunesmith. What’s uncommon are the traditional stories and folkloric tales woven into the songs, and the music itself, with light traces of jazz, classical and Irish folk mingling with her bookish, heart-on-sleeve, Bright Eyes-meets-Laura Marling style of acoustic strumming.
“They’re basically very good jazz players who also happen to like folk music,” Undlin said of producer Leonard and her Humbird bandmates, bassist Pat Keen and drummer Peter Quirsfeld.
Those jazzy tones include the light brass horns and lilting stand-up bass parts that wrap around Undlin’s somber but determined-sounding voice in “Persephone,” an evocative song that blends Greek mythology with all-too-current worries of sexual assault. There’s more of an electronic, Björk/Aphex Twin-like backdrop behind the willowy and wondrous album closer “Bone Heat.” And slow-chugging piano and violin parts accompany the slow-building “Eve Boards a Train,” a song that imagines the Bible’s Eve wandering through modern-day America.
As is also a tradition in folk music, Undlin considers all those ancient tales open terrain for her own interpretations.
“One of my favorite things to learn on my fellowship was that those old stories were never static; they’ve been fluid as they were passed down, including stories in the Bible,” she said. “They were around and changed for so long until somebody wrote them down, now some people hang to those versions like they’re doctrine.”
And she knows a thing or two about doctrine. Undlin was raised in the church under her mother, Mary Pechauer, a pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis. She also grew up playing hockey and was “your basic jock,” she said, until she changed schools before her junior year to attend Perpich Center for the Arts in Golden Valley.
While it’s been a long time coming — and literally a long journey when you count her fellowship abroad and all the low-budget D.I.Y. touring she has done in recent years — Undlin still sees her budding music career as very much a work in progress. That’s one of the reasons she hesitates to say whether Humbird is a pseudonym or band moniker.
“It’s basically meant to be a fluid name I use for the songs I write and record,” she said, “but I want my music to change and evolve, so we’ll see.”
One more thing she’s leaving open to interpretation.